Science Fiction near future labor unions


By Marie Vibbert
Apr 10, 2019 · 3,430 words · 13 minutes

From the author: Collective Bargaining and Direct Memory Transfer -- watch out for the quirks.


            Stosh waved his arms.  “Stop. Joe! Just stop. JEEZUS.”

            Joe, on the hoverplank above, turned off his saw and lifted one side of his ear protection. “What?”

            “You can’t just… look, get down here.  We’ll transfer it.”


            “GET DOWN.” Stosh pointed at the pavement.  “Christ I’m so mad I’m going blind.”  He blinked away the black spots as he watched Joe toe the plank down to the sidewalk.  Joe had his chainsaw resting on one rangy shoulder, blade edge down, which was another fuckin’ story.  “Look, it’s complicated and I don’t have time, so let’s just transfer this, okay? You need to know what to cut.”

            Joe smiled. “Really? Sweet!”  He pushed the power off on the plank and dropped the saw into the grass.

            “That saw’s expensive. And dangerous.  You set that down.”

            Oblivious, Joe followed Stosh into the equipment shed.  “So can I add this to my resume? What you’re gonna teach me?”

            Stosh stripped off his work gloves and turned to find Joe had already taken his off.  Of course he had.  This, the guy could do without being asked.  Stosh laid his palm against Joe’s longer, thinner one and felt for the contacts.  Base of thumb, middle finger, pinky.  It always felt a little metallic, like licking a battery, when you got it lined up right.

            Stosh’s vision blurred as he called up the command menu.  It had to be something wrong with his implant, but the guy at the store wouldn’t admit it.  The text was clear, though, and he easily flicked through to his knowledge of tree trimming and passed it to Joe.

            “There. Now think before you start hacking into a two hundred year old oak!”

            Joe blinked. “Oh. OH. Shit, I’m sorry.  What was I thinking?”

            “You weren’t.  Now go, and hope the property owners don’t sue us for tree-trimming when we’re supposed to be doing carpentry.”

            The branches did have to be cut, though – to make room for lifting the carved balustrade in and to protect the repaired balcony from water damage when they were done.  But trees had to be cut a certain way.  Stosh believed in this firmly.  Or at least the woman whose memories of tree trimming he’d bought felt that way.

            It had to be a woman. Her ideas of trees were layered with a hint of masculinity, and the masculinity was other than self.  Stosh touched the old oak’s thick trunk and shook his head.

            “You did not just give that moron valuable knowledge.”

            Stosh turned to see his chief carpenter, Liz, standing behind him.  Liz had one of those sweet, baby-doll faces that got her carded at the movies despite her grey hair.  That face was scary when she was this pissed off.  Judging by the piece of molding in her hands, she was initially going to ask him something else.  “It wasn’t protected,” Stosh said. “Union won’t mind.”

            “I mind,” Liz said, and re-gripped the wood in her hands like a cudgel.  “He’s going to put whatever it was right on his resume and apply for journeyman status.”

            “It was tree trimming, Liz.  Just tree trimming.”

            She looked like she didn’t quite want to let go of her anger, but said, “Oh,” nodded, and turned the molding back to front.  “Wanted to show you this piece.  The length is off.  See that?  They started milling a quarter-inch in.  I can cut it off, but then we’re a quarter inch short on the other side.  I was thinking, if I carve another acanthus leaf here, I can move this piece so it’s against the wall, and the piece I already put there I can put in front.”

            “Liz, put your carving in front. It’ll be the nicest part of the railing.”

            “Asshole,” she said, through a pleased smile.

            She held the wood in her hands exactly how a soldier would hold a rifle and Stosh wondered what quirks she’d picked up over the years of learning her trade.

            The big front doors to the apartment building opened, flashing cut glass and crystal as the building owner, a woman like an iron bar in a dress, stormed out.  “What is he doing?” she pointed at Joe.  “That’s a two hundred year old oak!”

            “He knows what he’s doing,” Stosh said, silently adding “now”.

            “He’d better.”

            “The tree needs to be trimmed for our large pieces to make it into place without hurting it.  Also so water dripping from the branches doesn’t enter the woodwork on the balcony.  This’ll be better for both the tree and the building.”

            “You know, I didn’t have to hire you.  My cousin says I should have just had him 3D print trim to match.  But I wanted to be authentic.”

            The trim, aside from Liz’s additions, was carved by a machine much like a home 3D printer.  Liz was better, and her carving would last longer, but an hour of Liz cost as much as the whole print run of trim.  “I love these old buildings, ma’am, I care for them like they were my own.”

            “You better,” she said, and looked up at Joe again like she could tell what a fuckup he really was.

            A man in a black business suit, probably one of the endless stream of “executive education clients” going to the business school on the corner, was walking down the sidewalk at just this time and stopped. He said, “Shouldn’t have hired union. Those guys are lazy assholes.”

            Stosh glared at the man, who glared back.  Stosh wondered how much the man was earning on his salary while he stopped to criticize other people’s work.

            To his relief, the building owner said, “Why don’t you mind your own business?”

            “Your loss,” the man said, and continued on his way.

            The owner stood and watched, her arms crossed, until Joe finished cutting branches and returned to ferrying wood and tools to Liz.

            “Sorry for snapping at you about Joe,” Liz said as they walked away from the site at quitting time.  “I know why you did it. I just…” she shook her head.

            Stosh considered the block ahead of them, and the wait for the train at Mayfield, and the bar they were passing. “How about a drink? My treat?”

            Liz froze and stared at him like he’d suggested a three-way on the sidewalk.

            They’d worked together for almost five years, but had never hung out socially.  Had he crossed a line?  “Hey. It’s not like a guy-girl thing. You know I’m married.  I was just… just friendly.  My feet are killing me, and it’s a hundred degrees out.”

            Liz shook her head. “No, it’s all right.” She squared her shoulders and marched into the tavern like she was going to war.  Stosh followed, confused.  He watched Liz sit down.  She tapped and scrolled idly at the menu on the table.  Tiny hairs had freed from her tight cornrows, giving her a grey halo that glowed in the bar light.

Finally, she spoke.  “My joinery instructor was a recovering alcoholic.  They say you can’t get addictions, you know, in the transfer, but I did get this anxiety around alcohol.  Fear of falling off a bandwagon I’m not even on.  It’s only a problem when I’ve been making joints.  Especially dovetails.”

            “I didn’t know that.”  Stosh sat down. He chewed a callus on his thumb. Suddenly he wasn’t so sure about getting a drink himself. Did he drink too much?

            Liz shrugged.  She double-tapped a beer on the menu and leaned back.  She looked tired, too.  “I’m worried. We all are. The carpenters, I mean.  There was a knowledge leak.”

            It jerked Stosh right out of his wool-gathering.  “From one of your own?”

            “Had to be, man.  Who else could have?  They’re advertising it. Advertising.  On, I kid you not, EBay.  Carpentry Union Techniques.  Up for sale.  We’re fucked.”

            Stosh had his finger poised over a lite beer. He flicked to the liquor page and ordered a double.  “I don’t know.” He tried to come up with something positive to say.  The trade unions had jumped on memory transfer when it was new, and it had revitalized them.  Instead of just threatening not to work, they could promise real knowledge non-union people didn’t have.  Couldn’t have.  Only the unions had the internal trust, in the early days, to transfer their best knowledge and get it certified.

Stosh said, “It was never about specialized knowledge. The union, I mean. It was always about collective bargaining.”

            “You want us back on the streets with baseball bats like the old days?”

            “Shit, Liz. I started as a laborer. We’re the guys with bats.  And trust me, that’s never going away.”

            “Well, now we’re in the same boat. If anyone can be a master carpenter for the right price, what are we selling? What do we have to offer to be worth paying us?  We’ve already had some polls on cutting fees or benefits.”

            “I think you gotta calm down.  It’s not that bad yet.  Let’s say guys buy the knowledge – they already have. Who’s going to hire them? How are they going to find the jobs?  Contractors like me, we’ll always stick with who we know.”

            “Maybe,” she said.

            They sank into an awkward silence.

            At the next table, some women in lab coats were going on about noncompete clauses.  “They sandbox your head.  You can’t pass on anything you learn.  I hear they’re working hard to take the knowledge back out.  It’s ridiculous. And I work for a nonprofit!”

            “It’s the same at the university,” her friend said.  “We have to clear everything through the office of monetization.  I mean, really. If I have an idea that has a humanitarian purpose, I can’t do it myself if it could also be used to make the university money.”

            Liz rolled her eyes. “White collar problems.”

            “They oughta unionize,” Stosh said.

            Liz snorted. “Asshole.”

Stosh tried to balance the books.  Drinking that whiskey on the way home didn’t help.  He didn’t know how he was going to pay his guys.  He stared at his messages but it didn’t change what they said. He’d been underbid, again, by a non-union contractor.  Three bids all rejected.  He had been counting on at least one advance to cover payroll until the next job paid off.

            How the hell was Jones going to do that job for less than Stosh’s break-even point?  The bastard had to be cheating someone.

            All anyone gave a crap about was bottom line. Didn’t matter that Stosh used the right materials paid his people well. Didn’t matter that his group had the expertise to protect historic buildings. No. Bottom line, every time.

            The human race was a cheap bunch of bastards.

            His phone buzzed. Another message.  It was anonymous. That was strange.

            Job offer. Knowledge xfer. Txt 218 if interested.

            He blinked. No, he wasn’t drunk.  Someone was offering to buy knowledge from him.  Probably protected union knowledge.  He thought he ought to throw the phone down in disgust, except he didn’t want to damage it – it was pretty old.  So he set it down just hard enough to make noise.

            That didn’t satisfy so he stood up and paced around the couch.  He didn’t want to blame Joe, but he could imagine the idiot blabbing to his fellow idiots about how he’d gotten free knowledge at work that day.

            Stosh’s mom had been a non-union laborer. It had worked for her at first. No dues, more take home pay.  But then she’d tripped on a frozen tire rut while carrying a three hundred pound concrete form and broken every bone in her right hand.  No workman’s comp.  She’d duct-taped her hand together to finish out the last hour so she’d get paid for the day.  Stosh came home from school to find her thawing the frozen blood and duct tape off her hand in a glass mixing bowl.  It looked like the bowl was full of blood.  “I need you to drive me to the emergency room,” his mom said.  She’d been dumb enough to duct-tape her broken hand but smart enough to know she’d better remove the duct tape before showing it to a nurse.  And that was it.  She never got another construction job. They’d have been homeless if it weren’t for Uncle Andrezej taking them in.

It wasn’t rocket science.  People with money didn’t just give it up for you out of the kindness of their questionably-existing hearts.  Stosh joined the union as soon as he could. His uncle was his sponsor.  Uncle Andrzej retired at fifty-five.  “All my buddies who didn’t go union are broken and broke.  In togetherness, strength, kid.  You go it alone, they use you up and throw you out like your momma.”

The sad truth was, with so few union jobs and so few union spots, it was all about knowing someone, preferably being related to someone, to get in.

Joe was someone’s cousin or nephew or something.  Stosh no longer remembered how he’d been introduced and induced into giving the kid a shot.  He wasn’t lazy. He worked hard.  He was enthusiastically dumb, though.  You had to watch him lest he trip over his own feet.

            As his grandma used to say: when the schlemiel trips, it’s never the schlemiel who gets hurt.

            Stosh drove his truck to work the next day.  He had to visit multiple sites.  Joe was working cleanup on the apartment job. Liz had already moved on to interior restoration at a church downtown.  They were getting a new organ and had to have all the woodwork taken down around it and put back at least as good as new.  It was a long and careful job, and not very lucrative, but Stosh cared about restoration projects, and Liz did, too.

            Stosh would normally have been there to help Liz with the initial set up, but instead he was watching Joe take down temporary bracing and coverings.

            Apparently he was doing it as conspicuously as he felt because Joe stopped halfway to the truck to say, “What?”

            Stosh touched the old oak tree for strength.  “You’re 310, right?”

            Joe leaned back, snorted, and went on his way.  The back of his hard-hat bore the Laborer’s Local 310 sticker.  Stosh shook his head.  He followed Joe to the pickup and helped drag a plank neatly into place.  “I mean you’re loyal, right? You wouldn’t go spreading shit around?”

            Joe straightened and sighed.  “Man, is this about yesterday? I know some dudes were jealous, but you didn’t say it was a secret.”

            Stosh slapped the side of the truck.

            Joe jumped down from the truck bed, loose-limbed and young.  “You gotta let a guy brag, man.  I got little enough to be proud of.”

            And instead of kicking something or bustling around like an oversized puppy, as Joe would normally do, he stopped at the oak tree and put his palm flat on it. He looked at it, quietly, and nodded.  “Sorry, Stan,” he said.

            “Stosh,” Stosh corrected.  He hated being called ‘Stan’.  It wasn’t his name.  Joe didn’t look away from the tree, and Stosh felt embarrassed.  “Just… finish getting all our stuff out.  Check with the landlady, make sure she’s happy.”

            Joe gave the tree one final pat and stepped onto the hoverplank.  “I got it.”

“Wipe everything down with a chamois.  Send me a message when it’s all packed up.  I’m going to St. John’s.”

Old churches had a particular scent.  Decayed wood polish, incense and dust.  It made him think of dried flowers and dirty lace.

Liz was up on the altar, pointing and directing, irreverent as a coyote.  She was holding a T-square against her shoulder like a musket.

Someone slipped onto the pew beside Stosh.  Old woman with a lace hanky on her head.  Stosh assumed she was a parishioner until she spoke.

“You never texted.”

Stosh immediately tensed for a fight.  He forced his fist open and wiped his sweaty palm on his jeans.  “Do I know you, lady?”

She pursed her lips and slid a slender package toward him on the pew.  “A token of our interest.”

Stosh didn’t touch it.  It was about the size of a small bible, or two fat stacks of cash.  Either way he wasn’t interested.  “What the hell do you think I got that you want?”

Her denim-blue eyes snapped to his.  “Keep your voice down in a house of worship.  We’re on the same side.  We want good people to benefit from their work.”

“You want me to sell out my friends for cash.”

“Knowledge should be available on the free market.”

“So everyone can build their own construction projects, eh? Why not do away with jobs altogether?”

“Maybe we should.  Maybe we should waste all evening debating philosophy while you wonder how you’re going to make payroll tomorrow.” Her eyes flicked down to the package and then back to his.

Stosh looked at the package.  How did she know that he was in trouble on payroll?  He picked the bag up. It wasn’t sealed.  It was two stacks of bills.  The ones on top, at least, where twenties.  “You can’t buy me, lady.”

“I’m not asking for any skills we couldn’t buy elsewhere. But you have a lot of skills. It saves us time and time is money.  How to deal with the building codes and local government. Who the best tradespeople are.  Where to get wood that isn’t reconstituted.”

On the altar, Liz had frozen. She was looking down, frowning.  Someone had left a tall boy of malt liquor by the podium.  She picked it up with two fingers like it was a dead rat and walked it to the nearest trashcan.

“Principles and an empty sack are worth an empty sack,” the woman said. “My father used to tell me that.  Don’t be stupid. I’ll just find someone else.”

Stosh’s gut sank. She would, too.  Someone like Joe.  Stosh held his hand out, palm up.  The old woman’s hand was sweaty. She’d been nervous, then.  He locked eyes with her.  Her face was stone cold.  He felt the tang of connection, like biting into a grapefruit.

He called up his menu, eyesight blurring.  What was he doing? Playing for time? Maybe Liz would see and come over and wack the old lady with her T-square.  The lady cleared her throat, wondering why he was just holding this open connection and not sending something through it.  He scrolled through the knowledge files that had been transferred to him.  The ones he’d gotten while in Laborer’s Local 310 were protected, so that even while connected, the woman couldn’t see the titles. She would see he was accessing files, though, know he was looking for something.

Building Codes: Cleveland.

Building Codes: Ohio

Building Codes: Special: Restoration

Building Laborer’s Union: Concrete Pouring

Building Laborer’s Union: Rebar

Building Laborer’s Union: Foundations

He remembered each transfer, felt each subtle quirk of the instructor. The union had spent years selecting the very best minds and sources.  Everyone complained the quirks transferred better than the facts.

He paused.  He went back to the top of the list and selected one of his very oldest files.  Now there was an idea.  He almost smiled as he passed her the file.

She withdrew her hand with a gasp.

            “That’s Collective Bargaining 101.  Some anger in that.”  A lot, actually. He could see her expression flickering through frustration, anger, disgust: The collected memories of dozens of passionate movement leaders. It was protected and secret more for ceremonial reasons than its content.  It was a right of passage, receiving that. Maybe it was time that particular knowledge was free in the world.  Stosh stood.  Her eyes tracked up to his, wide in comprehension.  “Watch out for the quirks,” Stosh said.  “I have a lot of them.  If one of them you got is generosity… pass it on.”

            He tucked the envelope of money in his belt and left the church.






This story originally appeared in Analog.

Marie Vibbert

Snarky stories with robots, space ships, and blue collar sensibilities.